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Religious boundaries in public schools continue to baffle Hillsborough leaders

Jeff Eakins listens to a speaker during the Hillsborough County School Board meeting last year. The new superintendent has faced controversy over religious groups and the level of access they are given in public schools. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Jeff Eakins listens to a speaker during the Hillsborough County School Board meeting last year. The new superintendent has faced controversy over religious groups and the level of access they are given in public schools. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published Apr. 23, 2016

TAMPA — In a year when attention has been focused on the Hillsborough County school district's relationship with Christian organizations, it took a lawyer in Wisconsin to stop a self-styled minister with a criminal record from spreading the Gospel to athletes at five public high schools.

The district responded promptly, banning the Fellowship of Christian Athletes representative from campus and making plans to train all other adults in the local organization on Monday.

But the controversy made this clear: Religious recruitment is widespread in the district, as it is in schools around the nation.

Some of it is legal under the Equal Access Act, which allows students to gather at tax-funded schools and discuss topics that include religion.

Some of it — namely, activity led by adults — results from school officials who do not understand the law, or who appreciate the contributions Christian organizations make to schools and students, or both.

Superintendent Jeff Eakins, who was questioned about his relationships with Christian organizations during his first year in his job, today finds himself walking a fine line between meeting students' needs and protecting their rights.

"I genuinely believe people are capable of providing supportive services to our schools without proselytization or forcing their ideology on those they are serving," Eakins wrote in a letter to the American Civil Liberties Union, which asked for a meeting to clarify district actions.

But, he added, "I unequivocally stand behind our district's mission of 'preparing students for life.' This practice is not one size fits all, but rather a unique, multifaceted approach that requires the dedication and support from our entire community."

The ACLU plans to meet with Eakins on May 5.

• • •

Faith-based organizations in Hillsborough make up a large group consisting almost entirely of churches and Christian groups. They plant trees. They help children read. They mentor kids with dysfunctional families.

They organize social events off campus, with objectives that include getting students interested in the Christian faith.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Christian fellowship representative proselytized in Hillsborough schools for years without clearance

RELATED: Hillsborough school district reviewing relationships with faith-based partners

One such group, Young Life, attracted the notice of the Jewish Community Relations Council after an adult leader made repeated visits to Wharton High School and was photographed at a table full of students.

"We have substantial problems with adult Young Life leaders entering a lunchroom and proselytizing and soliciting students for off-campus events, including Christian worship," Jonathan Ellis, the council's chairman, wrote to district officials.

Word spread that "a Jewish student" had taken his picture, causing Ellis to wonder if that speculation would open up other Jewish students to retaliation.

On Feb. 24, district Chief of Staff Alberto Vazquez told Young Life it could not send any adults to Wharton for the remainder of the school year.

Rob Tolley, Executive Director of Young Life Tampa, declined to comment.

Ellis said he was pleased the administration took action. But he does not doubt that such situations exist elsewhere. "We only raise it when we find out about it," he said.

• • •

Faith-based relationships that some consider a blessing are, to others, a liability.

"The sense that you have someone saying, 'You should change your religion and give up the religion that is not the true one and accept my religion' is an affront," said Tampa Rabbi Richard Birnholz, speaking at a panel discussion on religion in the public arena.

Jewish students are often open-minded, and that can make them "doormats," Birnholz said.

"I find myself teaching a course to my own teenagers in our religious school on how to talk to missionaries who try to convert them, and it's a shame that I have to teach that sort of course," he said.

Jewish leaders this year were alerted to a "Jesus pizza" event at Robinson High School conducted by First Priority, a student-led club, during lunch.

First Priority's vision statement is "the hope of Christ in every student." A network of adults provides guidance, speakers and refreshments.

In January, Eakins addressed an annual meeting of First Priority Tampa Bay. He thanked the group for supporting district initiatives that include mentoring and leadership development. He defended his remarks later, saying he was not endorsing First Priority but addressing the group as he would address any secular organization that helps children.

That explanation did not sway critics of proselytizing in schools.

"All of us should be deeply concerned if there is a default value that says certain kinds of aggressive religious engagement is allowed if students lead it," said Rev. Russell L. Meyer, a Lutheran minister who spoke at the same panel with Birnholz.

"And some of the speech-making that has happened from our school officials has operated from this kind of default value. Things have been said from the highest levels, 'Oh, we're so happy that you're in schools because you're reinforcing all the values we want to reinforce.'"

Since his January speech and the news articles that followed, Eakins and his staff have met three times with Jewish leaders.

Birnholz said the meetings were productive. He was pleased the district requested a list of Jewish holidays when exams should be avoided. "In all fairness, they need to be given time," he said.

Ellis, similarly, said, "It seems like they're getting it. They're moving in the right direction."

School Board chairwoman April Griffin, who had pointed conversations with Eakins after the First Priority speech, said the district is working to reverse inappropriate practices, in this and other areas, that existed long before he took over in July.

Her position on proselytizing at school has not changed, she said. "It's against the Constitution and it's not appropriate. What I see happening is more of an awareness."

She noted the district responded quickly to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes situation.

In an interview Thursday, Eakins said he and his staff have taken steps to make sure school administrators are familiar with law, district policies and protocols.

Among them: Volunteers must be screened. The content they provide students must be secular. Principals should not appear in promotional videos for the churches and campus ministry organizations, as some did in recent years. "I believe our training is spot-on now," he said.

SERVE, the organization that screens volunteers, has been absorbed by the district in what MaryLou Whaley, director of parent and community involvement, described as a transitional year. "We're requiring much more of them," she said. "All of our relationships are forming and becoming a little more structured."

After training all adults affiliated with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, the district will train coaches and staff who work with volunteers.

"We want to make sure that we have clear processes and responsiveness when issues come up," Eakins said. When that happens, "we address it immediately, we get to the bottom if it. And that's the kind of thing we would want to do for any complaint."

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or msokol@tampabay.com. Follow @marlenesokol.

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